FOR students at elite Stanford University in Palo Alto, the
adjoining town of East Palo Alto has always been the other side of
the tracks, or more literally, the other side of the freeway.
Until not so long ago, the largely African-American and
Hispanic-populated town was known mostly for Whiskey Gulch, a
stretch of liquor stores where students could evade strict
anti-alcohol rules on campus. More recently, East Palo Alto was the
site of shootouts between drug gangs that earned it, in 1992, the
dubious distinction of having the nation's highest per capita
But an unusual theater program is helping bridge the gap between
town and gown. The project complements a larger transformation
taking place in East Palo Alto in which economic development and
community policing have turned around many of the city's maladies.
The collaboration between Stanford students and faculty and city
leaders and residents has resulted in the production, last month,
of two original one-act dramas portraying the history and life of
East Palo Alto, along with a video documentary.
The two one-act plays - "Circle in the Dirt" and "Dancing on the
Brink" - featured casts drawn from both the campus and the
community. The documentary and the research to develop the
productions, which played to packed houses in East Palo Alto and
Stanford, will be used as educational tools.
"Nobody expected anyone to come," recalls Walter Matherly, a
middle-aged East Palo Alto resident who both acted and served as
community liaison for the project, "but on the first night the
house was jammed. The East Palo Alto cast members, their brows were
knit, as if to say, 'Now what are we going to do.' "
Joaquin Torres, a Stanford junior, joined the project as an
actor, motivated in part by the desire to learn more about his
neighbors. "The Stanford community is so white - East Palo Alto is
a big shock," he says. By participating, he now sees the city
differently from the way most Stanford students do. "I was
surprised by the richness of history, the combination of race and
culture," he says.
The project was the inspiration of Stanford drama professor
Harry J. Elam Jr., who heads the university's Committee on Black
Performing Arts. It is based on the "research to performance"
method pioneered some 20 years ago at Brown University by two
African-American studies professors, Rhett S. Jones and George
Houston Bass, who studied a neighboring community in Providence,
R.I., and then produced plays about it.
Professor Elam began by sending letters to all 5,000 households
in East Palo Alto inviting them to a meeting in early 1993 to
discuss the project. Only a handful showed up, so Elam shifted
course and formed the East Palo Alto Project with community
leaders, city council members, and local activists. They tried to
make it as diverse as the community itself - a third black, a third
Hispanic, with a large community of Pacific Islanders, as well as
whites and others.
Because of the mix of the community, they decided to commission
two playwrights, one black, one Latino, each of whom would write
one-act plays. Charles "OyamO" Gordon, the author of "Dancing on
the Brink," is a University of Michigan drama professor and
acclaimed playwright. …